When China met Africa

In the mid-1990s, we witnessed the speed of China’s explosive growth. After a year in Beijing, Marc lived in Shenzhen, formerly a fishing village and one of the fastest growing cities in the country. It is now a metropolis with over 14 million people. We travelled extensively throughout the country and were overwhelmed by the pace of change. Economic prosperity was becoming the new religion and it wasn’t just changing the face of China.

Several years later in 2005, during the making of our previous film ‘Black Gold’, we met a group of Chinese workers building a road in southern Ethiopia. It was this encounter that sparked our curiosity about the significance of China being in Africa, and how it represented the expanding footprint of a rising global power. But this relationship was in fact far from new. Over 600 years ago in the 15th century, the infamous Ming dynasty explorer, Zheng He, established trade routes with East Africa and by the 1970’s China was financing and building large-scale infrastructure projects including the Tazara railway linking Zambia to Tanzania, which relied on 50,000 Chinese labourers.

In 1999, China announced its ‘go global’ policy and encouraged its corporations and entrepreneurs to look to Africa for investment opportunities. Since then, China has accelerated its engagement with the continent not only to secure resources for its booming economy but also to extract the raw materials which our laptops, games consoles, and mobile phones are dependent on.

China has characterised its relationship with Africa as “win-win.” China gets much needed resources, and Africa benefits from vast investment. China has invested billions of dollars into mining, manufacturing, infrastructure and agriculture and has brought its own brand of development through the provision of cheap loans, technical expertise, healthcare programmes and scholarships.

In 2006 Beijing cemented its relationship with Africa by hosting a summit of 48 African heads of state. President Hu Jintao proudly declared that, “China will remain a close friend, reliable partner and good brother of Africa.” Meanwhile, the western media became gripped by a frisson of ‘yellow-peril’ paranoia and articles of China’s ‘take-away’ of Africa and ‘neo-colonial’ rise appeared everywhere. It is now estimated that up to one million Chinese people live in Africa. China is re-defining the continent’s economic landscape and is gradually displacing the influence and relevance of Western governments, corporations and development agencies. China now lends more to Africa than the World Bank.

Few countries capture the essence of the China-Africa paradigm than Zambia, which established formal ties with China on the day it became independent from British colonial rule in 1964.  Zambia is the continent’s largest copper producer and is a vital player in China’s expansion into Africa. With a population of 13 million people, it is strategically located in Sub-Saharan Africa. It is also the country where China chose to establish Africa’s first special economic zone. 

So it was Zambia that became the backdrop to our feature-documentary ‘When China Met Africa’ which tells the China-Africa story in microcosm, from the perspective of a Chinese farmer, a Chinese road project manager and the Zambian Minister of Trade who we accompanied on a trade delegation to China. 

When we met Minister Mutati in the Chinese-built government offices in Lusaka, he characterised the difference between the West and China; “When I sit with investors from the Western world they do a PowerPoint presentation about projections, cash-flows, profit and loss accounts, income statements, balance sheets, risk assessments and all these flamboyant graphs. I’ve never seen those with the Chinese. They probably do them on their own, but when they come here, they just ask me what are the incentives? Where is a piece of land where we should go and begin to work?”

Liu Changming, the Chinese farmer, embodies this entrepreneurial spirit. He came to Zambia ten years ago with his wife and children, after years of working in an office. In 2006, he bought a plot of disused land, which he quickly turned into a farm. He is now onto his fourth farm and will continue to buy more. One morning, at 5am in the city’s chaotic chicken market he explained to us his business philosophy, “I win on good breeding and control of the cost of production. It’s about the survival of the fittest. The competition is always there and the weak ones will be weeded out after a while. It’s not a problem. The market is harsh, just like the battlefield. The winner survives.”

This confidence is not only reflected in the thousands of Chinese entrepreneurs who are investing in Africa but also in China’s engagement with the rest of the world. 

In October 2010, the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visited Greece to invest in industries and infrastructure that had been crippled by the financial crisis.  It was an opportunity for China to win new business for its companies and to deepen its foothold in Europe. As we write this, he is coming back to Europe, with deeper pockets and it will be the turn of the UK and Germany to pitch themselves against each other to secure China’s investment.

Two hundred years ago, Napoleon observed that “China is a sleeping giant but when she wakes she will shake the world.” Wherever you look, that prediction is ringing true - China’s influence in Africa is indicative of a much wider shift in power from West to East.